288 Elizabeth I and the Historians


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Hello everyone and welcome to the History of England Episode 288 Elizabeth I and the Historians.

We left Elizabeth passing through Temple Bar, with professions of love for her subjects – time would tell. We discussed whether the Mulcaster version of events was in fact a little free and easy with the verité – I decided not, that it reflected reality, but I am a trusting innocent soul. But what Mulcaster’s version certainly does is play to an image of Good Queen Bess we like to believe in, and furthermore, which explains much of what we do know about the reign.

Which brings us to myth really, because the myth of Elizabeth is all around us, possibly more than any other English pubic figure; maybe Churchill and Henry VIII can compete, and of course Dennis Amiss, peerless opening bat for Warwickshire and England. That’s a joke by the way, I am confident I’m the only person to carry a flame for Dennis. Back on topic, Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman [1]edited an interesting book on the myth of Elizabeth, the title of which is in the transcript on t’internet for the keenies among you. In the introduction there’s an interesting bit about defining historical myth, and they make the point that myth should not be confused with error; that myth may contain substantial amount of truth; and is believed because people wish to believe it, amd because it explains things satisfactorily. And so a powerful and enduring view of Elizabeth is of the solitary and all-knowing, successful Virgin Queen, succeeding despite the patriarchy, glorious victor over the Imperial and colonial might of Spain, defender of the English church. It’s a lovely view, and seems to explain a lot about the reign and what happened afterwards so we go along with it. And there’s a big part of me that says well alright then, go for it, a nation needs to have it’s great and inspiring stories, and there’s plenty in it which is perfectly defensible. But sadly, however deeply affected history is by the cultural norms of the day, if this is going to at least try to be the history of England rather than our Island story, then over the next few weeks and months we should decide whether the evidence really does support the comfortable and happy myth.

And obviously we should start with the lodestone of 1066 and all That, which has a lot to say on Elizabeth

Although this memorable Queen was a man, she was constantly addressed by her courtiers by various affectionate female nicknames, such as Auroraborealis Ruritania, Black Beauty (or Bete Noire), and Brown Bess. She also very graciously walked on Sir Walter Raleigh’s overcoat whenever he dropped it in the mud and was, in fact, in every respect a good and romantic Queen.

Sellar and Yeatman then turn their attention to more important topics such as the Wave of Beards and the Great Armadillo, which we’ll come to in due course..

Ladybird, the 1958 version,  was thoroughly blown away by her -she gets a whole book to herself, and its all good traditional island story stuff – Drake is a brave national hero and defender of England against the Spaniard, rather than essentially a licensed pirate; Raleigh is a far sighted visionary, and so on. Elozabeth was an all knowing leader guiding the ship of state to a glorious destination. The British Empire was definitely a Good Thing, capital….The summing up of Elizabeth goes like this

Her reign saw the beginnings of what came to be the BE. The fighting sailors of her reign, and the great victory over the Spanish Armada made England one of the greatest of the countries of Europe.

Much of this was due to the character of Elizabeth herself. She never despaired and never gave in.

How then, was Elizabeth’s reputation formed? Curiously, Elizabeth’s reputation among her contemporaries was partly made precisely by those taking a pop at her. John Foxe was cross with Elizabeth for her refusal to go far enough to rid the English church of what he saw as the remnants of popery; he rewrote his book of martyrs to represent Elizabeth’s triumph as divine providence; the idea was to shame Elizabeth into taking the Good Work, capital G Capital W because God had protected her and made her reign possible. Then there was Edmund Spencer and his faerie Queene and other writings. I have never read Spenser, and am heavily prejudiced against the lad due to the piteous cries of pain delivered up by some of my A Level contemporaries forced into studying him. I have it on good authority though, that Spenser wrote not just to destroy the lives of teenagers, but because he was livid that the queen again would not eradicate the final traces of Catholicism, specifically by executing MQoS, source in his mind of all plots. Obviously criticising a monarch was a life shortening experience in the days of yore, so again criticism was hidden as for praise for mercy. Nice, though it would have been too subtle for me to get.But, Elizabeth evidently knew full well both Foxe and Spenser had an agenda; and yet she rewarded both instead. Que? Because she was clever enough to know that by appropriating the praise and ignoring the implied criticism, so her reputation would be enhanced. And if you want evidence of Elizabeth’s subtlety, then it seems to me that is all you need. My response to criticism is to fly into a rage or weep into a beer – but then I suppose I am not the queen of England.

Ok, on then to the death of the Queen and as you would expect there were a series of glowing tributes, which is of course de rigeur, and a very grand funeral. But in the immediate aftermath there were no great histories – although some say we do get Francis Bacon’s very famous phrase that she would not make windows into men’s hearts occurred at this point; other attribute that saying, while we are on it to Walsingham. Nobody thinks Elizabeth herself actually said the words in that order. However, in the early 17th century the path is firmly set for Elizabeth’s characterisation. between 1615 and 1629 William Camden published his Annales, and they would be deeply influential in the way that Elizabeth would be seen. Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind who commissioned Camden – William Cecil, Lord Burghley. So, spookily, Camden’s history vilified Leicester and criticised him as a wildly zealous protestant. Burghley and Leicester were not pals. However, more importantly for us, Camden’s work produced a picture of Elizabeth the politic, pragmatic ruler, reluctant to fight and hating religious extremism of all kinds; while as the same time as the militant champion of Protestantism, a warrior queen who defeated the armies of the antichrist. To achieve this sleight of hand we get a queen who is prudent, wise, peaceful; but who is also devious, cold, and rather unsympathetic.

A quarter of a century later one John Hayward refined the message in creating advice for James’s heir, Prince Henry; for Hayward, Elizabeth avoided war in foreign lands as far as possible, and when she did intervene, did so for reasons of state rather than for co-religionists. To some degree by now Elizabeth was the flail with which unsatisfactory Stuart kings were whipped; it is in Stuart times that her reputation was probably the highest. This feels like a potentially bad parental technique, with which I have been the object, of comparing one’s offspring to the family of shining perfection down the road. An approach to be deplored and rejected for children, but monarchs are, well, fair game I’d say. Certainly, Charles I got it in the neck. Arf and if you will arf.

And so by now we are moving smoothly into the image of Whiggish perfection. David Hume’s history in 1759 described an Elizabeth of vigour, constancy, magnanimity, penetration, vigilance, prudence. Eager to outdo each other, the most whiggish of the whig historians such as the ubiquitous and omnipresent Thomas Babington Macaulay fell over themselves to praise Caesar, given that she was already helpfully buried. Elizabeth was the monarch who identified herself with the nation and its destiny. She was a Queen who wielded absolute power but, in reality her power was only absolute because it was based on the love and confidence of her subjects. I may cry.

So far so good, Elizabeth’s bones are encased in a warm fuzzy feeling. But hang on just a moment, hang on. Right from the start there was a negative narrative too, which came from, yes, you guessed it, Catholic sources. With a delightful lack of irony authors such as John Leslie, Adam Blackwood and Robert Person popped Bloody Mary into the cabinet of forgetfulness and painted Elizabeth as the great persecutor, ‘that inhuman murderess of God’s saints’. Not just that, but they picked up on her relationship with Robert Dudley and painted a picture of sexual immorality. Until recently both these narratives have failed to take hold; more recently, there’s a reasonably frequent and tiresome attempt to create some equivalency between the Elizabethan persecutions, which were severe enough, it must be said, and the excesses of Mary, but still the dominant received history at least is of relatively restrained religious policies under Liz. The catholic tradition was much more subtley done in the early 19th century by the catholic historian John Lingaard who according to Patrick Collinson in the ODNB [2]buried a catholic historiographical tradition under rigorous historical research, and exemplary use of manuscript materials. Whatever the subtext, Lingaard again described a far sighted, governor of great wisdom. Though he raised a question – was it really all Elizabeth’s wisdom?

Huh, interesting. As it happens the first person to really break ranks in the 19th century was James Froude, whose name always gets mentioned when we talk historiography. I think its fair to say that Froude had something of a downer on the Virgin Queen. He wrote a history of 12 volumes on the period between around 1530 and 1588. 12 volumes. Try getting that in a window promotion in Waterstones these days, good golly Miss Molly, that s serious history. There was nothing remotely catholic about Jimmy Froude; I don’t know enough about him, but he appears to be the sort of man who courted controversy and in himself sounds a rather fascinating subject. Anyway, while working hard to refute the Oxford Movement’s attempt to reinterpret Anglicanism in the Catholic tradition, Froude found himself heartily disliking Elizabeth – he found her talentless, torturous, indecisive; as far as he was concerned the achievements of the reign came down to her privy councillors, not to her. The history of Tudor England was still one of greatness, but it was achieved despite Elizabeth.

So at least we have a bit more controversy, and this idea of well, was it really Elizabeth? Is something of a theme. However, the main narrative of the likes of the lovely Mandall Creighton, A J Pollard, J E Neale and A L Rowse, right up to the 1950s was broadly laudatory, and the thing everyone got really excited about was that here was a ruler who really knew and connected with her people – so you know we are back to the ‘Ye may well have a greater prince, but ye shall never have a more loving prince’ stuff.

Of course, since the 1960’s the professional historian has been made of saltier stuff, of every valley shall be exalted and the high places plain mould. Perspectives have changed. Christopher Haigh took the ‘let’s judge her by her worst essay’ approach to assessment and focussed on the 1590s. The 1590s, ladies and gentlemen, was not a happy decade in the lives of ordinary English men and women. Also, Elizabeth was in her 60’s and was not wearing well. Haigh argued she was increasingly indecisive, ruled with a narrow privy council and was unloved by her people. Which is rude, but does accord in some ways with the analysis of Patrick Collinson. Collinson wrote an influential article called the Monarchical Republic[3], which took a traditional rubric a little further. You are all of you well versed now in the importance of the Parish as the centre of English life. So important was the parish that the English system of government has been described as ‘self government at the king’s command’, which in his essay Collinson describes as a tired old expression. Well, for folks like me, it is yet a sparkly, shiny and exciting concept, and I suspect always will be. But hey, the sky is blue in this shed of mine. Anyway, the phrase reflects the strength of local power in everyday life and indeed its money raising powers, and also the imperfect nature of central control. I’m warbling. Collinson developed a view for central government of England which was also semi-independent of the queen; essentially ruled by the Privy Council which essentially governed and chafed the queen when she didn’t do as they desired. Remember those two concepts if you will; self government at the king’s demand as a model of Englsh governance, which has a lot of merit. And the idea that the PC really for all intenta and purposed ruled Englandand should appear in Ladybird.

Connected with this idea was Elizabeth’s legendary indecisiveness. Geoffrey Elton described her as

persistently dilatory, [she] changed her mind as often as chance offered, exasperated everybody by her refusal to come to decisions, and charmed them all back again by some transparent piece of graciousness’.

Christopher Haigh made a similar point that Elizabeth

‘did not attempt to solve problems, she simply avoided them – and then survived long enough for some to go away’

John Guy made the same point

‘Elizabeth’s weakness was that she vacillated when faced by important decisions’

Wallace MacCaffrey went even further, maybe furthest, and represented Elizabeth as a confused and ineffective ruler who simply had a run of fantastic luck. Still more recently, however, historians such as David Loades have taken the view that indecision was precisely what Elizabeth wanted. Not making a choice was precisely what gave her power – that she was at her least comfortable when her privy council was united and pushing one line; she was most powerful when she had the ability to choose. Jennifer Eales dug out a killer quote from a letter from Elizabeth to the Duke of Anjou which suggests that rather than an inability to decide Elizabeth was one of those exceptional talents who had the ability to do the very hardest thing at all, which is to do nothing:

I have used time, which ordinarily accomplishes more than reason does. And having made use of both, I have not refrained from roundly declaring to you what I know and what you will find true always, I see well that many people go away repenting of having made rash judgments at the first stroke, without having weighed in a better balance the depth of their opinions

Even John Guy admits that Elizabeth was a clever and talented politician, when he wrote that

Perhaps better than any other European ruler, Elizabeth mastered the political game

Susan Brigden’s view was that

The duty of her counsellors was to offer advice; the Queen did not necessarily see it as her duty to follow it[4]

And concluded that

Unlike her father, Elizabeth was not easily led

And David Starkey emphasised that however much agency you give to Elizabeth or Privy Council, she was determined to be her own person, and we should realise that because she told us:

I will not be like my sister Mary. And I will not rule like her either’

Finally, another recent theme has been to dig much more into the problems for Elizabeth from her gender, given the patriarchal nature of Early modern England. And wherever you land on the continuum which has at one end, Elizabeth was just a figurehead to the Elizabeth listened to Hawkwind and was Master of the Universe at the other, there is no doubt that there were things, like leading an army, which was a taboo for women even she was unable to break; and to some degree at least that meant some compromise on her power.

Let me summarise then. The traditional view was a very positive one, and based on a super positive image of Elizabeth started by Camden in the early 17th century, and used as a whip to discipline Stuart kings. She was master in her own house, controlled parliament, restrained religious conflict, but did not resolve those issues, which were only fully resolved by the Civil Wars of the 17th century. They were capable of making slightly daft statements like England ended her reign as a major European power who could never be ignored sort of thing. Just as a plot spoiler that’s not true, England is very much still in small damp island off the coast of the place where the really powerful people live territory in 1603.

Revisionists de-emphasised the amount of religious conflict, and emphasised just how worried England was about the Catholic threat, rather than being this self-confident thrusting power on the inevitable and whiggish path towards greatness. The Post-Revisionists have looked at the rule of Elizabeth from the feminist perspective, and the context of a patriarchal society; Elizabeth is seen as a weaker monarch, not for her personal characteristics particularly, but because there were so many constraints on her power, and she often had limited room for manoeuvre.

Now then, I think I have said enough for one week on the historiography, although next time I will also unpick some of the more detailed themes of her reign, but we’ll get on with the business of politics too.

Before we go though let me ask you to remember a couple of things. The first is that in all the talk about reputation building and how much practical power Elizabeth wielded, which will unfold over the next few months of the podcast or, although I don’t want to weary you, possibly years of the podcast, is that Elizabeth was surely the best educated and intelligent of Henry’s children, thoroughly educated in multiple languages, a talented speaker and as we have seen aware of and able to communicate her charisma. She is no cipher. I say this because of point two which is to remember that she is 25 at this point, and it’s almost impossible it seems to me to put aside the images of the Gloriana thing later in the reign. At some point, the white paint will be applied to her face a body, but it was probably not yet; it could be in a few years after 1562 when Elizabeth has a serious bout of small pox. There are so any images of Elizabeth that I was interested to learn that we can’t be confident that almost any of them make a real likeness; Roy Strong studies them and complained that the structure of her face differs all over the place. The exception is the picture of teenage Elizabeth at Windsor castle. Now she’s 13 there, so much younger than she is here, but you know, show me the child at 7 and all that, and already in that picture is a firmness of purpose, suspicion, the intelligence. I have put that image on the website, and for the first few podcasts at least it is that image I recommend you keep in your mind.

[1] The Myth of Elizabeth, Ed. Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman, 2003

[2] Collinson, P: Elizabeth I in the Oxford Database of National Biography

[3] Collinson, P: The monarchical republic of Queen Elizabeth I in John Rylands University Library of Manchester (1987), pp 394-424

[4][4] Brigden, S: New Worlds, Lost Worlds, (2000) p214



10 thoughts on “288 Elizabeth I and the Historians

  1. Thanks so much; I was eagerly looking forward to this episode and it did not disappoint. And you’re right; the tough little girl in her brocade dress is a powerful image. Finally, thanks for referencing Brigden’s book. It is terrific, and especially enlightening for readers who, like me, were brought up to think the Reformation an entirely Good Thing.
    One of the best things about recent historiography on Elizabeth is finally hearing from some female scholars. Victorian males like Creighton and Froude love Elizabeth while she’s a victimized princess, but dislike the Queen acting for herself as “indecorous, vulgar, bad-tempered”, i.e. unladylike. Too many 20th-century male historians look for the “pathology” that kept her from marrying, without considering, for example, what she may have learned from the fates of her father’s 6 consorts and the two married queens regnant she was related to. Many male historians also assume that whatever they dislike in Elizabeth, especially her indecision, is due to some quintessentially female quality.
    I’m eagerly looking forward to future episodes – do as many as you like: they can’t be too many for me!

    1. Yes, it is fascinating how the old idea of ‘female characteristics’ colours older views of Elizabeth. I think it is now almost mainstream to see Elizabeth as making a conscious decision to avoid the insupuerable problems of marriage.

  2. Great episode, as always!

    I came accross Macaffrey works in a used book shop some years ago and, instinctively ”most of the successes of the Elizabethan government had nothing to do with her” did seem a rather big stretch. I am definitely not surprised recent historians went on another direction, altough, to be fair to Macaffrey he did give her some credit in managing to make her religious settlement stick, deal with her internal opponents and, in general, manage England’s internal politics well.

    Even more jarring was how, just like the previous poster mentionned, what he disliked in her was due to her femininity while what most of the credit he did gave her was described as coming from ”masculine qualities” he considered she had. In many ways it was something of an eye openner as to how sexist historiography in general could be, even as late as the 80’s.

    On another note, and while it is a bit out of subject as it wasn’t the main theme of the episode, I do admit a bit to have always been a bit puzzled regarding the depiction of the 1590’s as a purely negative period. Yes, you can’t exactly describe the decade as an uninterrupted streak of Elizabethan success, to stay the least, but neither was it completely devoid of them. Cadiz was taken, the second and third armadas were defeated and, overall, the English more or less won the war at sea, even if the Spanish fleet as a whole was not knocked out by any means. On the continent England’s interventions in France and in the Low Countries reached their geopolitical objectives: the survival of the Dutch Republic was more or less ensured and Henri IV of France was able to quash the League, reuniting France around a regime who, while not Protestant, was definitely protestant-friendly when it came to diplomacy and definitely anti-Hapsburgs.

    1. Thanks Phil, and interesting to hear your view of Macaffrey. Interesting thoughts about 1590s; and you have a very good point. I think the argument about the 1590s is in the misery that hits England in plague, harvest failure and famine. Folks like Christopher Haigh argue that Tudor government did little to help. More recent historians like Susan Doran argue that Elizabeth’s government worked well within the limits of the time.

  3. This is the start of a very interesting next couple months of podcasts. There is so much about Her, everyone and everything around her that will be great to get into.

    Given the situation we are in everywhere today, it is EXCEPTIONAL to have you back and we can get absorbed into the history that you provide us.

    Just take care of yourself and really glad you are on the mend.

  4. David, I was so delighted that two new episodes popped up in my feed. I’ve missed this so much, it’s been a part of my life since episode 6. Hope that the recovery is going well and looking forward to the next year with Elizabeth. I live round the corner from Ashridge House and regularly bore my family with Elizabeth facts. Cheers and stay safe.

    1. How lovely, glad you like them. I am rather excited about being with Elizabeth at last – make sure to thrown in some interesting facts and nuggets along the way! David

  5. Hello david, i am listening to episode 111 right now, i just wanted to say that i thoroughly enjoy the podcast!

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